McGee links AJGA, success

As former PGA pro and East Palestine resident Jerry McGee perused the list of Sunday’s U.S. Open final results, there was one fact about each player that became pretty obvious to him.

“I went down the entire U.S. Open list and couldn’t find a player that didn’t go through the AJGA [American Junior Golf Association],” McGee said during Monday’s practice round at Mill Creek Golf Course. “The same holds true for those on the women’s tour.”

The AJGA is hosting the Mill Creek Foundation Junior All-Star tournament this week at Mill Creek’s South Course with McGee serving as honorary guest host.

It’s the second straight year that the tournament for 12-15 year-olds has been at Mill Creek with boys and girls winners advancing to the Junior All-Star Invitational this fall at Reynolds Lake Oconee in Greensboro, Ga.

“This is by far the most fantastic group for junior golf,” said McGee of East Palestine. “The tournaments that they have, it’s simply the PGA Junior Tour.

“I had never been to an AJGA event until last year, but walked away most impressed with the level of play and how the kids handled themselves both on and off the course,” McGee said. “My clubs are obsolete compared to the ones that they are using.”

Two local entries, Jayne Bernard, a freshman at Cardinal Mooney High School and Conner Stevens, a sophomore at Brookfield High School, were among the 96 boys and girls taking advantage of the practice round. Twenty-three states and three foreign countries (Canada, China and Russia) are represented.

Bernard enters AJGA play on the heels of winning Friday’s Greatest Golfer qualifying event at Tam O’Shanter Golf Course in Hermitage, Pa.

She says that if there’s an advantage, albeit an ever so slight one, it’s that Mill Creek is her home course.

“The goal is to get better and just have fun,” Bernard said. “It’s a very talented field and while I’m a bit nervous, the fact that this is my home course should help.

“I feel like I know the greens better and have a little more knowledge overall about the course,” she said. “This is one of the most competitive fields that I will ever play in so I want to do my very best.”

Stevens said participating in the Greatest Golfer the past three years and taking part in some other highly competitive tournaments has prepared him for this year’s AJGA.

“I know about 10 of the golfers in this year’s event and all are excellent players,” Stevens said. “The goal is always to win, but the field is quite competitive.”

Max Moldovan is the defending boys champion and at 15 years of age, was an alternate for this year’s U.S. Open.

The Green High School student said he’s looking forward to defending his title.

“If I play like I did last year, then I feel like I’ll have a pretty good chance of defending my title,” Moldovan said. “I love the course because there are a lot of scoring opportunities.”

Ryan Flanagan, AJGA regional director, credits Brian Tolnar, Mill Creek’s PGA Director of Golf, as the driving force behind bringing AJGA to the Mahoning Valley.

“Brian was previously involved with AJGA when he was at Blue Heron Hills Golf Club in New York,” Flanagan said. “He really wanted us to come to Youngstown and I can see why because Mill Creek Park is a fantastic setting.

He was the vision behind this three years ago and between Brian, his staff and the many volunteers, it has been a great association.”

Tolnar, a Hubbard native, said that his goal when hired in 2015 was to make a major difference in the local community.

“Hosting a national event that makes a substantial financial impact to the Mahoning Valley, and makes the Mill Creek MetroParks accessible to families all over the world, is something that we’re really proud of,” Tolnar said. “The financial support of the Mill Creek Foundation, Mahoning County Convention & Visitors Bureau, Mahoning Valley Hospital Foundation and the 200+ volunteers have helped us bring over a half million dollars to the area over the past two years.

“It’s something we can’t thank them enough for with our goal heading forward to bring many more events like this to the Mahoning Valley.”

Mike Senchak serves as president and CEO of the Mahoning Valley Hospital Foundation.

“At the foundation we are always looking for health initiatives and what better initiative than the AJGA and the youth that are playing in this tournament,” Senchak said. It’s a great event, not only for our youth but the entire community so kudos to Brian Tolnar and his staff for the outstanding job that they have done.”

Andy Detesco serves as Mill Creek Foundation chairman.

“As we showcase Mill Creek Park to those from other states, it’s a true recognition of the high level of golf that is played in the Mahoning Valley,” Detesco said.

One out-of-state player is 12 year-old Bailey Shoemaker of Cooperstown, N.Y., who is playing in her third AJGA event.

“I actually played a round yesterday, but got called in on the 16th hole when it started to rain,” she said. “The course is similar to the Beth Page Black Golf Course in New York City, so I feel like that will help me out.”

Opening-round play begins today on the South Course from 7 a.m. to 12:10 p.m. with a cookout and social slated from noon until 5 p.m.

Second round action is set for Wednesday (7 a.m. to 12:10 p.m.) with the final round slated for Thursday, also from 7 a.m. to 12:10 p.m. An awards presentation will follow.

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